EDITORIAL - Southern shift: Obama should overhaul Latin American policy

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Pressure is growing on President Barack Obama to take early action on his pledge to make changes in Latin American policy.

The Bush administration by the end of its eight years in office had fallen out with various traditional Latin American partners on a number of scores. One was Mexico. George W. Bush started off well by making his first out-of-country visit as president there. Then, when 9/11 struck, Mexico quickly became the friend who didn't hear from him.

A second was Venezuela. Its president, Hugo Chavez, arguably is a pesky big-mouth who is very hard to get along with. At the same time, the Bush administration got off on the wrong foot with Mr. Chavez by cozying up to a regime that overthrew him in a coup d'etat, which he then promptly reversed. After that, the administration continued to find Mr. Chavez's socialist approach to how Venezuela's wealth should be managed out of sync with the views of its own political base, which included U.S. oil companies.

A third problem area is Cuba. American policy under Mr. Bush did not move beyond decades of expectation that Fidel Castro would eventually die. When Fidel was replaced by his brother Raul because of Fidel's illness, Washington did not take advantage of the change to update its Cuba policy. Instead, it continued to stiff Cuba and embrace the government of President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, probably the most right-wing in the hemisphere, presumably out of fellow feeling.

Many Americans expect Mr. Obama to bring U.S. policy in Latin America more in line with his overall foreign policy approach, into a posture more appropriate to 2009 and less a vestige of the Cold War. Such change is still to come and it is, of course, early in the Obama administration.

Latin America inevitably will be lower on the list for him and for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton than Europe, Asia and the Middle East. At the same time, these countries are the United States' closest neighbors and important trading partners. It is definitely time to move.


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